If you're a regular reader of this column, you know that I prefer to focus on the positive. So this statement may be a shocker: There's a lot to lose when you make a career change.
At the top of the losses list would be: Your Identity. Nothing insignificant about that, huh?
Let's say you're an electrical engineer who's decided to go to law school. You're tired of engineering. In fact after ten years of engineering, you hate it and can't wait to get going on your legal career. It doesn't matter how eager you are to dump what's right now, you're still giving up a substantial part of yourself. For better or worse, our society pins labels on us and assigns status according to what work we do. (We're quite good at pinning those labels on ourselves, too.) So for ten years, your label has been ENGINEER. You hang out with engineers. You read about engineering. You think like an engineer and react like an engineer. To make the switch, you must give up that identity.
There's more. You have to say bye-bye to some of your self-confidence. Maybe even more than some of it? After ten years as an engineer, you feel pretty confident about handling new situations at work, don't you? Maybe you've become the go-to guy/gal when there's a particularly messy problem to be solved? That reputation makes you special, separating you from the rest of the pack. Oops! Suddenly you're switching to something you know next-to-nothing about. What's your confidence level now? Probably lower than a new kid in town on the first day of eighth grade.
Yep, have to give up the need to be sure, too. You may feel pretty certain that you'll do well on the LSAT, but how about getting into a decent school and managing to snag good grades? Add in the nagging what-ifs about getting summer internships, finding the right job, being successful and - maybe most important - the big question that's always lurking: Am I making the right choice? Will I really like my new career? So many uncertainties.
And of course there are miscellaneous unknowns, those that you don't even know about yet so you can't worry about them - yet. Can you? Don't do it! Stay away from the free-floating anxiety. That stuff will drown you.
In a brutal nutshell, a career change means you have to give up your old self for a new self that knows very little, embraces uncertainty, says OK to the loss of control and agrees to live with fear. Career changes aren't for sissies.
In their book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World, authors Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson tell the story of a woman who, when diagnosed with cancer, realizes that she must make major changes to every part of her life (physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual) if she is going to muster all the strength necessary to battle her illness.
Even when faced with that life and death struggle, the changes were not easy. She said, "We'll do almost anything to not go through that loss of the old self. But if we can find the courage to let it happen, we can eventually move to a new place in consciousness."
And that's what your career change may very well require - a new place in consciousness. How do you get there? There is no handy-dandy template for finding it, no program for inputting data so all you have to do is wait while the solution pops up. Your answer is unique to you.
Moving to the new is rebirth. It's a painful separation from the old self that resists change and can get real grumpy when forced to accept sacrifices and delayed gratification. Temper tantrums from the old self may sound like, "Let's keep skating along with the old ways. Forget this new stuff. You don't need it." Those kinds of thoughts tell you the old self is fighting for its life.
Yet every day, a whole lot of people somehow find enough courage, enough certainty and enough commitment to leave the old behind and walk forward into the unknown. That's what's needed - not absolute certainty or total confidence or a mountain of courage - just enough so you can (to paraphrase Joseph Campbell) get rid of the life you planned and get started on the one that's waiting for you.